Sunday in Portlaoise was not meant to happen. And it almost did… Anthony Daly’s Dublin bravehearts were just 10 seconds away from ending 71 years of Black-and-Amber torment.
In a frantic, pulsating, almost logic-defying finale, it boiled down to this: Kilkenny desperately chasing down one last puckout in hope – or prayer – that the sliotar would break their way.
With 71 minutes and 25 seconds on the clock, Joey Boland had arrowed over his ninth point – and seventh converted free – of a compelling Leinster SHC semi-final. Dublin noses were back in front; was Galway’s Leinster final ambush of 2012 or Wexford 2004 about to repeat itself?
With two minutes of injury-time signalled, all Dublin needed was possession from Eoin Murphy’s puckout. Instead, after a brief interlude of uncertainty, Kilkenny substitute TJ Reid emerged with the priceless sliotar and nailed his point.
Then the whistle sounded. Dublin were that close … and now they must do it all again in O’Moore Park next Saturday night (throw-in 7.0).
Beforehand, no one in the press box was trawling the record books for Dublin’s last championship ambush of the Cats because, well, no one expected ancient history to repeat itself.
For the record, it last happened in 1942. And given Dublin’s fitful form graph over their last three outings, the sceptics would have you believe it would be another 71 years before the hex was ended.
And maybe that will still apply … you know what they say about gung-ho underdogs, chastened favourites and replays?
But while the kneejerk reaction is that Dublin will forever live to regret their failure to win that last, fateful Kilkenny puckout, Anthony Daly doesn’t see it that way. And why should he after managing a team that has already defied the rampant pessimism of a disbelieving public by forcing Kilkenny to the brink of provincial oblivion? “I think we’ve a great chance,” he defiantly declared: “We’re right there.”
What Dublin have regained from yesterday’s deadlock is the respect of the elite hurling counties, so hard-won through their thrilling exploits in 2011 but which had dissipated incrementally over the past two seasons.
What else have we learned from yesterday’s high drama? Firstly, as Daly was quick to remind us afterwards, “winds never win anything for you”. His men had played with the benefits of a near-gale during the first half but failed to make it count: a damaging 10 wides, plus a fluffed early goal chance from Paul Ryan, were compounded by several avoidable defensive turnovers during the second quarter.
The net result? Dublin required the last three points of the half to secure 0-8 apiece parity at the midpoint.
Kilkenny had won the toss and actually elected to face the elements. The wisdom of that decision looked inarguable as the sides re-emerged for the second half; and yet an equally undeniable truth is that (in a continuation of their curate’s egg quarter-final against Offaly) the All-Ireland champions had once more failed to sparkle as we know they can.
Of their starting attack, only the irrepressible Walter Walsh and, to a lesser extent, Richie Hogan had made any first-half headway.
Still, with the wind in their sails, you expected them to push on and maybe even go for the third-quarter jugular.
Instead, it was Dublin who upped the ante: the sight of corner-back Paul Schutte marauding deep into enemy territory for the first point of the half was, in retrospect, a tell-tale sign of Sky Blue intent.
Then Boland, who had assumed the freetaking duties to deadly effect once the misfiring Ryan was hauled off after just 19 minutes, doubled their lead after an admittedly dubious foul on David Treacy.
The next score, when it happened, had the look of being one of those pivotal ‘what if?’ moments for the plucky outsider. Dublin sub Mark Schutte had an inviting point chance but dropped it short to the Kilkenny netminder; one long clearance later, Walter of the Walshes was doing his Roy of the Rovers routine, the All-Ireland replay rookie hero pouncing on a break to roof an unstoppable shot beyond Gary Maguire.
That four-point turnaround could have sapped the spirit of another team. But not Dublin here. Three times they hauled in a one-point deficit. Then deep in the final quarter, having allowed Kilkenny to edge two clear, they summoned up one more heroic stand and points by Mark Schutte, Conal Keaney and another Boland free left them one ahead in the 69th minute, glimpsing paradise.
There was still time for Eoin Larkin to equalise with his seventh free; and Boland to riposte with his would-be winner; before Reid’s late, late rescue act.
In summary, there are many reasons why Dublin almost created history but the chief reason was an upsurge in collective intensity, communal belief and individual performance in that second half.
Peter Kelly was the pick of a full-back line that visibly grew in assurance. At centre-back, Liam Rushe was a high-fielding ball magnet in the home straight. Boland and Johnny McCaffrey were now the dominant midfield axis.
The breaks finally started to fall the way of the hard-working Keaney, while Daly’s bench were equally key to the comeback – no one more so than David ‘Dotsy’ O’Callaghan who was bubbling with ball-winning intent from the moment he replaced Ryan.
Given that several of his starting forwards struggled to make any initial impact, the Dublin boss now has some big decisions to make.
The same applies to Brian Cody who, we suspect, will be privately seething at the faltering intensity and, at times, most unKilkenny-like use of possession in that second period.
It just goes to show that a Kilkenny team minus Henry Shefflin, Michael Fennelly and Jackie Tyrrell is mortal after all. Of the three, Cody reckons only Tyrrell might be fit for the replay … maybe the game isn’t up for Dublin after all?
Frank Roche- Irish Independent